Fear of Virtual High Schools

A reader sent this question to me today:

I was wondering if you read Clayton Christensen’s prediction that by 2019, nearly 50 percent of high school courses will be taught online.  What exactly did the author mean by this?  Did he mean that by this particular date that nearly 50 percent of high school students will be at home doing virtual schooling or that 50 pecent of the high school courses will have an “alternative online option” to the course.  I teach History, do you think there will still be a need for plenty of classroom History and Geography teachers?

This is a scary world we are living in.

I hadn’t read Clayton Christensen’s article before, but I’d heard the prediction elsewhere (Technology Seen Transforming U.S. Education System and The rise of ‘virtual schools’ divides education world, for example). I believe it means that half the courses taken will be taught online. For some students, that probably will mean they take all their courses online; for others, it will mean taking some courses face-to-face and some online. For example, a student might go to high school in the morning but take other courses online from home in the afternoon. I think we’ll also see continued growth in areas like online tutoring outside of the schools.

Online courses can give students more choices, for starters. Many schools in the US, especially rural schools, don’t have enough students to fill advanced math and science courses or to offer multiple choices for foreign languages. Online courses allow students in those schools to take subjects that simply wouldn’t be available to them otherwise.

There will absolutely continue to be a need for teachers with online schools. When we’re talking about virtual high schools, we’re talking about schools where teachers are employed. This isn’t homeschooling or completely self-paced learning; the student-teacher ratios are usually comparable to face-to-face classrooms. However, if you’re only willing to teach in a physical classroom and not willing to teach online, that may hamper your job opportunities in the future if the prediction is right. Your job prospects may depend on your willingness to learn to teach online, and it is a different set of skills than teaching in the physical classroom.

To get an idea of what a virtual high school might look like, check out the Colorado Virtual Academy. Their curriculum lists 20 different history and social sciences courses; clearly, the need for history teachers still exists.

Are we looking at a future where we’ll only need half the teachers we need now? No, I don’t think so. Are we looking at a future where the role of teachers changes, and many more people will teach online? Yes, I do believe that. I don’t think that’s scary though; I think it’s exciting. We have all these possibilities for global collaboration in education. We can provide choices for students so they can find the right environment for their individual learning.

For instructional designers and others who develop e-learning, I think the online K-12 market is definitely something to watch. Whether the prediction of 50% by 2019 is right or not, this is an area that’s going to grow. This is good news for instructional designers; it means a whole other market for jobs.

For teachers, I think this means a different set of opportunities–not necessarily more or less, just different. My guess is that teaching online will allow some teachers to do a “partial retirement”; instead of retiring from teaching entirely, they might choose to teach a few courses online while travelling or spending time on hobbies or whatever.

If you’re working in the online K-12 environment, either as a teacher or as an instructional designer, I’d appreciate hearing from you. How would you address the fears identified by this reader?

12 thoughts on “Fear of Virtual High Schools

  1. Hey, thanks for your email. Ok, so, not willing to teach online may hamper my job opp. I agree with that, but does that mean that most teachers will be required to teach some online courses in addition to face to face OR does that mean that there won’t be as many jobs in the classroom?

  2. Honestly, I’m not sure how it will work out. My guess is that it will be a combination: some teachers will work only online, some will do face-to-face and online, and some will work only face-to-face. Some courses may be offered in a blended online/face-to-face format. In general, I agree with the idea that more skills = more opportunities, so if you have the skills to teach in either environment you’ll be better off for choices.

    I doubt we’ll ever get to the point where there are no jobs for face-to-face classrooms, at least not in our lifetimes. After all, online college is booming, but plenty of professors still teach in physical classrooms. In higher ed, online learning has focused mostly on reaching adult students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to go to college due to work and other commitments. This means more students are in college, and effectively adds to the total number of teaching jobs at that level.

    High school is a different audience though. You don’t have a large population of high school students who aren’t able to attend, not in the US or UK anyway. Online education may initially work best as a flexible option for teenage parents or students who need an alternative setting. If that’s the case, then it may increase the total number of jobs at the high school level slightly. I don’t think that’s going to be as significant at the high school level though. If online does grow as much at the high school level as predicted, I think some of that has to be a direct competition for face-to-face classrooms. In that situation, I would expect that the number of face-to-face jobs would drop.

    A lot of changes have to fall into place for that prediction to be accurate. I’m sure there will be growth in this area, but I’m not convinced it will be as fast as they say. I think keeping a pulse on the changes is a good idea; that will let you watch how things unfold in the next few years. If the next two or three years do show the kind of exponential growth they predict, I’d start investing some serious time to improving my technology skills. Of course, I think learning technology skills is valuable anyway.🙂

  3. I believe that there will be two types of online learning in high schools. I foresee a growing trend towards homeschooling and “alternative highschools” especially in poorly performing, dangerous school districts. This is already the trend in some areas of the country. In this case, students will take their courses from home, then have the opportunities to interact with others outside of their homes in “learning communities” where there will be field trips and other social/learning activities with larger groups.

    More likely, however, I see school districts downsizing their buildings (as they become more expensive to run or populations grow in selected areas and the building becomes too small to accommodate the population) and going to a compressed or year round schedule. I know of a few schools that are already doing this. These schools will use blended learning, augmenting the compressed face to face time with online activities/learning. I know of one school in Hawaii, for example that is on a 3-1 schedule year round (3 weeks of school, one week off). Another school I heard about has 3 week modules so at the end of every 9 weeks is a 3 week vacation. This would mean that students might “lose” some schooling during that time so they augment the classes during the 3 weeks off. Finally, many schools in urban areas have morning, afternoon, and night sessions. These could then be augmented with online sessions so there is the requisite number of teacher contact hours.

    I see the main problem with online high schools is access to technology. I think 2019 is a bit premature unless there is parallel funding for infrastructure and student access.

  4. Hi, Christy

    I’m in a MEd for ID and have been a teacher for about 11 years. I’ve just recently signed up to get your blog feed and am thrilled with it. It’s funny that it took me so long to find this field, because I’ve noted these issues for years.

    About six years ago, I ran a break-out session at a state Media Specialists’ conference about the need to push providers for more interactive technologies to meet the changing needs of the teacher whose role is shifting from information source to facilitator. Now, I hear this all the time.

    Two years ago, I got into a big debate in my teacher’s lounge when I dared to assert that the rise of online programs and telecommuting would result in a serious reduction of face-to-face teaching for all but those students who need to be institutionalized to get an education – or those courses that require a more tactile experience. Though, in my state, the most popular course at our online high school is, ironically, physical education. Every year, I have more students taking courses via our virtual high school; now my state offers virtual middle school. All it takes is for a critical mass shift in telecommuting to bring out the dramatic rise in homeschooling via the state run virtual schools. As our economy becomes more information technology oriented and less industrial, the move can occur more and more rapidly.

    I think you may be right about the blending of face-to-face and virtual environments. It seems to be the most practical transition. The state of the economy may play an even greater role in speeding the process up. School districts could save a lot of money on deisel fuel for buses by switching to 4-day weeks. Many schools are already on that schedule – they leave Fridays for extracurricular activities and tutoring assistance.

    Anyway… I’m pretty excited with my studies and the direction I see myself taking. Again, thanks for such an informative site.

  5. @Virginia Yonkers, the alternative high school idea makes a lot of sense to me. Students who aren’t successful in traditional schools need other options, and online can be one of those.

    I hadn’t thought about the possibility of alternative schedules with online or blended learning, but it’s an interesting idea. I know of several districts with year-round school, although I don’t know if they are augmenting with online.

    It may very well be that the infrastructure improvements simply skip over the physical high schools and happen elsewhere. Nothing in what we’re talking about here really requires that the physical buildings have better infrastructures, as long as teachers and students have it at home or available elsewhere. The Colorado school gives students loaner computers and printers and provides a stipend for Internet access. That would go a long way for many students.

    @Virginia Walz, I’m very glad you found me! The cost of gas is definitely a factor that is becoming a tipping point for online schools. I’ve heard that many community colleges are seeing a big jump in online courses due to the cost of gas. That student population is going to be more sensitive to the economics than traditional undergrads, I suppose. But K-12 school districts have to be affected by gas prices, and I can see this becoming a factor for them too.

    I’m sure there will continue to be some need for face-to-face learning and programs. Sports will still happen even if PE classes are online; people want those teams. The same goes for music groups (although I suppose with some advanced web conferencing, long distance practice would be possible…hmmm). Maybe those teams, bands, orchestras, and choirs will all be community groups outside the schools though.

    Thank you both for sharing your ideas–I’d completely missed the connection between online and alternate schedules, so I really appreciate your perspectives.

  6. For 200 years the American educational system has remained largely the same, to its shame and to the detriment of the children. With online learning comes a truly re-invented way to educate. The most advantageous aspect of online learning is the fact that the student is “driving.” When the student controls the pace, the content, the length of time spent and what he/she chooses to learn, he/she is much more engaged. With engagement comes mastery. With mastery, comes true education!

    Mimi Rothschild
    Founder and CEO, Learning By Grace, Inc.
    http://www.LearningByGrace.org

  7. Kia ora tatou! Hello everyone!

    There are a lot of assumptions being made about the future of online learning. One is that home-schooled online learners won’t need as many teachers as other systems of learning – False. Current statistics show that present practices in teaching home-schooled online-learners using available technologies require a greater teacher-student ratio (by far) for educational effectiveness.

    Home-schoolers also require attentive supervision, and that can’t be done by an online teacher. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of home-schooling for some learners because of the general quality of supervision some learners receive.

    A blended approach to learning means that, whether it takes place at home or in a ‘traditional’ classroom, online-learning is only a part of the learning activities available for participation by the learner.

    I think (I’m crystal-ball gazing here🙂 that the learning of the future is likely to be more of a blended type, mixed for and suited to the learner, whether at home or ‘in class’.

    Ka kite Catcha later
    from Middle-earth

  8. @Mimi, While I think online learning can still be structured so it isn’t learner-centered, I agree that usually the student is “driving” the learning more online than in traditional classrooms. Anything that promotes learner engagement has to be a benefit.

    @Ken, I hadn’t heard the stat about student-teacher ratios for home schooling, but I suppose I’m not surprised. Home schooling does seem much more about individualized instruction, and that means lower ratios.

    For my own crystal ball gazing, I’ll predict that we’ll end up with a diversification of education. It isn’t going to be one-size-fits-all anymore; it’s going to be a bunch of choices and blends that each individual plays with to find the right mix. Offering choices like that simply hasn’t been economical in the past, but online learning makes it possible.

    So far, we’ve been talking mostly about high school here. What about younger grades? A good point was raised in Physical Schools, Technology, and Childcare: a major growth in online K-8 education would result in a child care crisis. High school students can be unsupervised during the day, but middle and elementary school students? Is there a way to disconnect the school system’s child care from the education to allow online learning for younger grades?

  9. This is the area where I see a real change in the teacher (teacher preparation) as I could foresee Teacher Assistants (certified of course) doing the brunt of the “teaching” based on the curriculum and resources created by “master teachers”. There is a push (at least in NY state) for all learning AND child care to come from the schools (with universal pre-K, certification for pre-school teachers, certification for teacher’s aids, and longer school days and years). This would mean that there would be a different model of online learning to include video conferencing (this happens in some of our rural schools currently) with the “master teacher” leading the “class”, but TA’s being responsible for classroom management, set curriculum and resources developed by master teachers, even lesson plans that TA’s will be expected to use verbatim. The online component will be used in coordinating teaching and teacher aid training. This model can then be replicated for home schooling (master teacher “teaching” the class through video conferencing with parents or caregivers becoming the “TA’s”. I wouldn’t be surprised if states begin to require a training program for parents or caregivers if there is a large enough population who home schools.

  10. Hello Christy,

    I thought you might like to see how some K-12 teachers and organizations are making use of the virtual classroom. We often fear the unknow the most, so perhaps this will help!

    Check out some of our case studies under the K-12 category:
    http://www.elluminate.com/sales/casestudies/

    For example, NYC Special Needs District 75 used the online environment for a successful debate competition. Along with online instruction, virtual schools use the virtual classroom for office hours, tutoring, help desk, virtual field trips, professional development, and more.

    Also, we have a free 3-person/location virtual room you can use to try out this type of environment. You can sign up at http://www.getvroom.com.

    You should also know that many of our customers find that a blended approach, combining onsite and online learning works well for them. With educational technology, I think we are only limited by our imaginations!

    – Beth, Elluminate Goddess of Communication

  11. @Virginia, I wonder if California’s recent ruling (now dismissed, as I understand it) that homeschooling parents needed to be certified is indicative of things to come.

    As far as master teachers developing curriculum, that’s not that far from having Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and instructional designers develop online courses at the higher ed level. Developing quality online content is hard, and it does make sense to separate the content development from the teaching. However, the facilitators in that higher ed model still have the same qualifications they would normally. Their job is much more about individual relationships and feedback than developing content; having all the content done for them means they have more time to spend on each student.

    At the K-12 level, perhaps we could actually end up with three levels of people:

    Content developers: master teachers, SMEs, instructional designers
    Teachers: people who guide, coach, assess, provide individual adaptations
    Classroom managers: people who are physically present while students are online, provide technical support

    Content developers could work from anywhere. Teachers could be both online and face-to-face, probably in some combination of the two. Classroom managers (maybe with some better title) would mostly be there for the child care piece of the equation, but could also maybe do technical support. You’d need some sort of certification for that, but probably not a full teacher certification.

    Interesting ideas–there’s just so many combinations of methods and media possible.

  12. Pingback: Back to School and Into the Matrix « Thorsmark

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